I love being a class room teacher. I love creating interesting and interactive lessons using a range of strategies such as snowballing, envoys, writing on the tables (with whiteboard pens). I love researching and finding ways for the students to access knowledge, not just of the subjects I teach but of the world around them. I love their stories, the way young people see things, the questions they ask and I love steering them on the right path through the trials of adolescence. I love the ‘penny drop’ moment and the rewarding feeling you get when you really know you have made a difference. I also very much love throwing the occasional mime party in Drama, with mime sandwiches, cake and dancing.
Last week I made the decision to stop being a teacher. Everything I just said about my job is true, up to a point. There was a time when all of those things happened but, over the last four years, not so much. The profession is no longer the one I fell in love with.
A little bit of history; I became a teacher at the start of the new millennium. I trained because, where I lived, wages were pretty low unless you were a teacher or a doctor or similar. The dangled carrot of 13 weeks holiday a year also helped. When I trained I didn’t even like children. I did it because it was a career that allowed me to use my Degree in English and therefore justify the three years I spent studying. I taught for a year and a half took on far too much, let it take over my life completely and burnt out.
The problem was, at the time, I didn’t really love the job. Not then. I also had a lot going on in my personal life. Consequently I became severely depressed. Through a totally unrelated string of events I moved from Norfolk to Surrey and took the opportunity of the move to hit the career restart button.
I spent the following five years ‘trying’ out career paths. I had a small cleaning company that I ran with my sister – we had five clients – tried office work – not really for me – and worked in various roles in the customer service industry. Eventually I settled on retail and became a concession manager for a clothing company. I did such a good job I was eventually headhunted by one of the top end High Street fashion stores.
Around that time two things happened; first, the economy started to wobble and the first signs of the recession showed, second, I started to listen to myself. For five years I had been saying the same thing about my previous life. When the conversation turned to teaching and why I had given it up I heard myself saying; “well, I loved being in the classroom, but…” In the end I decided to really think about a return to teaching.
Long story short, I went back but kept in mind that, if I let it, the job could become all consuming. I made a promise to myself that it would not take over my life that I would still continue to do the things I had been able to do in my five year break. For a while that worked. I worked ’til about 6/7 most nights and had the rest of the evening free. I would use one afternoon over the weekend for work, made a point of only working less than half of any holiday and never did any work between the July and August paydays. However, as Robert Burns predicted there is only one outcome for such a great plan as this.
Education has always struggled under government interference. Between the current power and the media, teachers are put under more and more stress. It’s not even just teachers; nurses, doctors, any government worker trying to make an honest living.
This year, for me has been the final straw. I could just about swallow the whole pensions thing, certainly when you do the sums (and the unions will hate me for saying this), I don’t see that I am going to be any worse off in the long run. In fact, unless I and my pension advisor are very much mistaken, I could even be better off. Given, ‘they’ take a good couple of hundred off me to go into my pension (not including the National Insurance of almost half that to pay for my state pension) but they also contribute more than I do. If I teach for another 30 years I will actually do quite well financially, although I will also be nearing 70. Considering I can’t often find the energy to enthuse in my mid-30s, I dread to think what my lessons will be like as I hit my mid, or even late, 60s!
Then, there was the exam debacle. Every year as a teacher you come to dread results day, results analysis and league tables. Never is there a moment of ‘look how well you have done’, it is more often than not, ‘justify why you haven’t got the pass rates you predicted’ or, if the students did do well, know that it is because exams are too easy. Sometimes it seems that we never get a break. It has been well documented in the past that league tables can be quite damaging to schools. If, one year, you have a cohort that doesn’t do as well, perhaps due to collective social/economic situations or because something just went wrong, intake will be down the following year. Parents who want the absolute best for their children will only consider those in the top of the tables. Consequently, over the years, those further down the table do less and less well and so on. Bad schools become self-perpetuating because ‘good’ schools get the pick of the most academic. When it comes to A*-C % in Maths and English there is no such thing as extenuating circumstances.
This year, I’m not entirely sure what happened. I was in Rome the week of the GCSE results and missed the initial fallout. When I got back I heard our school was down on our A*-C percentages and it seemed that there had been some goal post moving when it came to grade boundaries. I mark for an exam board and this still came as a shock to me. On the first inset in September one of my colleagues, who marks for another exam board, said that he had been sent a different set of grade boundaries half way through marking. All I remember thinking at the time was that this move would make us look more like we don’t know what we are doing than the ‘floating grade’ boundaries already had. Imagine how hard it is to predict a grade when the exam boards won’t stick to anything. Then consider that, despite your best efforts, your students have dropped 5-6 marks putting them firmly in the grade below when you have been giving them the same grade all year. Who do the parents blame? The mug who has sat there throughout the last two years saying, “Oh he’ll definitely get a C grade. Safely mid-band, see….”
And so parents and pupils alike start to lose faith in the system. More and more when I call home to discuss a student’s behaviour or falling grades I am asked “what are you doing about this?” The answer, of course is everything I can. When I suggest the parent reinforces the message or at least supports the work at home I am often met with the same attitude; “you are paid to educate my child. I am not.” With more and more parents struggling to make ends meet financially. With the working week now averaging 40+ hours parents don’t have time for their children. Sadly with more rigorous data analysis and post exam damage limitation, neither do I.
Not only is there less support at home but it seems to me that the students seem less and less able to think for themselves. When thinking about what work to take home over the half term break (because a holiday is generally time to catch up on the job the government want you to do alongside the job you’re already struggling to do) I considered marking my year 9 Expressive Arts GCSE essays in the hope of guiding some of them towards a better grade. I realised that, if I were to do this, I would end up spending hours collating a ‘generic’ hand-out which would tell the students what they should have written only for a handful to actually use it. Since taking on responsibility for a subject I now suffer the fear of not doing as well as last year and find myself trying to do the work for the students so that they succeed. This is not teaching. I teach three subjects all told, two ‘soft’ subjects which are constantly threatened by the move to eBacc and English, which is one of the main focuses for the eBacc and the worst affected by the results this year.
For the record, changing the GCSEs to eBaccs, or whatever the government chooses to call them, and taking away coursework will not prevent the middle class parents from doing the work for their children, as Gove claimed it would. The introduction of controlled assessments did that. They also put more pressure on teachers as a controlled assessment can only take place in school, during a lesson, a lesson which previously would have been used for teaching and learning. I’m not even going to go into the problems this causes when a Controlled Assessment lesson is then observed by Senior Leadership or Ofsted. More rigorous exams will not mean more accurate testing. League tables and A*-C percentages and unrealistic FFT grades mean that teachers have to do whatever they can to make sure their students pass the exams. We are, even more now, in danger of teaching towards the test. Therefore schools will do everything they can to ensure most students get a pass grade. If they don’t the press will not say the exams are too hard but that we are not good enough at our jobs. Consequently if exams become harder and schools do not maintain their results they will lose numbers. This means they will lose funding. Money is so scarce in education no school wants to risk that.
But that’s ok because the government has two further plans. First to turn every school into an academy. Secondly to make it harder to become a teacher. Great. Plan one means that schools can hire and fire more easily and that they are free to employ unqualified teachers if they think they have more to offer, but that they potentially have access to greater funding. Plan two means that those of us who want to teach have to study harder and pass more rigorous tests only to end up at an academy who might well decide to employ a non-qualified teacher anyway. Sense makes not.
Since returning in September I have found myself less tolerant, less willing to answer questions, snappy and oftentimes rude in the classroom. I am the same with my friends. I don’t have time for interesting and interactive learning, unless it’s something I’ve cobbled together in a rare spare moment. I mark daily until 6 and then, once I’ve got home, walked my dog and eaten, I sit mindlessly in front of the TV because I do not have the energy for anything else. I avoid social engagements because they are too tiring and, I am downright miserable. Once upon a time I was the kind of teacher students could come and talk to. I did a home study diploma in psychotherapy and counselling so that I could work more effectively with those that needed it. But that was a long time ago and these days, I don’t have it in me to care.
This feels like a break up to me. When I think about not being a teacher I want to cry. I have spent the best part of the year trying to make it work but every time I claw a little bit back for myself someone comes up with another fascinating way to analyse data or Gove opens his mouth. I keep thinking about the first time round. If I hadn’t overdone it then I probably would have stuck with it. This means I would have had more years doing a job I loved, before it changed for the worse. On the other hand it would mean I am walking away after 10 years instead of only 5.
I know I‘m not the only one. I just hope that things start to get better not just for my fellow practitioners but for the kids as well.